BLUF – Use caution with the words you use with your teammates, because you could be inadvertently reducing the confidence levels of the teams you are charged to lead.
Last week I was invited to speak to the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy class on base as a prep session before I deliver their graduation commencement speech next week. In my usual fashion, I didn’t prepare any formal notes but did have a general theme in mind: talk about something that is original to me and provokes thoughts and discussion in arguably the most important tier of leadership in our military (junior NCOs). I decided to tell them three words/phrases that I really dislike hearing as a commander. Before you read them, I’m not against what those words mean or the pursuit of the idea behind them, I’m just sick of hearing these specific words/phrases:
Resilient – Early in this command tour (summer of ’17), I made a promise to myself to never use this word. The reason behind that decision is because I noticed there were a lot of young, first-term Airmen in the unit. After coming off a tour from PACAF staff comprised of Field Grade Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers, I honestly had to re-orient myself to interacting with younger generations. Part of that interaction is making sure I keep conversations engaging, and when I first mentioned that word I could literally see their eyes start to glaze over. It’s the same look our kids give us when we are trying to talk to them about something but they have already checked out of the conversation. The word Resilient was thrown at them at every opportunity, and I had to figure out a way to tell them that I wanted them to be mentally strong, yet not sound like everyone else around them. This was early in the #DBAA conversations I had with my First Sergeant, where we both wanted deliver a genuine message of caring for our teammates, not just repeating the corporate buzzword. I’ve mentioned to our team that caring for ourselves and each other will be a consistent idea we have to purposefully strive towards, this is simply about being a good Airman. If we all take time to develop self-awareness and “check six” for each other, our team will stay intact no matter what and we will move forward together.
Innovation – Yep, I’m over this word. Way over it. And yet it is currently plastered over our Portal page, repeated by great leaders like SECAF, CSAF, and CMSAF, but I’m sick of hearing it. I’m sick of it because while leadership keeps on saying this word, we have not removed the financial or risk obstacles in the way of truly letting this concept fly. I also feel like I’ve heard the word thrown into leadership speeches because they have ran out of ideas and are asking the rest of the force to be more active in the conversation on driving solutions. Sometimes I hear the word mixed in with other messages and walk away thinking “They have no idea what they are talking about and they use the word ‘innovation’ to cover up their internal confusion.” Again, I’m not against the concept, I’m only against the word. I feel the “eye glazing” actions starting to happen because the word has quickly risen to buzzword status. So much that if someone brings up a crappy COA to leadership yet throws in the word “innovative”, they will somehow be received well. I get it that part of one’s strategy is understanding your audience and using common phrases to help sell your idea (I do it all the time), so maybe I’m just a cynic who is over this trendy word. I also think that we aren’t using the word in it’s literal term, as in re-purposing a given tool/process and aligning the idea towards something else. Especially when it comes to technology, we tend to see a “newer shiny toy” and want to use it. That’s not innovation, that just catching up to the industry! That would be like LRS transitioning some of their fleet to Hybrid/eco-friendly vehicles. Nothing innovative about that; you are simply taking advantage of the natural evolution of technology. I realize my message may sound counter to leadership, but I did receive a lot of headnods in agreement that the word is getting tired and old. I expect our Airmen at all levels to constantly find ways to save time and money, because that is what is expected of them as leaders in the Air Force. Our legacy is built on the concept. No need to attach a buzzword; just do your job better.
“I don’t know, I’m just a Lieutenant.” – This phrase really bothers me. I gave them my permission to leg sweep any Lieutenant that says that phrase out loud. We all know and think the same thought, but don’t say it out loud because it sounds like you’re giving up your position of leadership. Keeping this short: take your job (not yourself) seriously and work hard to lead to the best of your abilities. If you surround yourself with the right teammates, you will be taken care of and the mission will get done. But don’t ever surrender your position of leadership.